New glory for a La Salle basketball program that has known its share

Posted: March 28, 2013

Like musty heirlooms in an attic, La Salle's basketball glory had been stowed away and largely forgotten during two decades of mediocrity.

But now that the 2013 Explorers have leaped back into the national spotlight with their unanticipated NCAA tournament success, La Salle's remarkable hoops history is being dusted off and proudly displayed once again.

"La Salle has a really proud tradition in basketball," said Speedy Morris, who coached the Explorers from 1986 to 2001, including six straight postseason appearances from 1986 to 1992. "It's nice to hear all of that being mentioned again during these NCAA games."

The tiny Catholic school, whose enrollment is barely 3,500 and whose cramped and outdated North Philadelphia campus resembles a 1940s movie set, has a basketball history that larger, better-known universities would envy.

The Explorers, for example:

Were NCAA champions in 1954 and NCAA runners-up a year later.

Were NIT champions in 1952, back when that postseason event was probably more prestigious than the NCAA.

Had a player, Tom Gola, who, 58 years after his career ended, remains the NCAA's all-time leader with 2,201 rebounds and the sport's only four-time, first-team all-American.

Had two players, Gola and Lionel Simmons, who rank first and second, respectively, all-time in combined points and rebounds.

Had three college players of the year in Gola (1955), Michael Brooks (1980), and Simmons (1990).

Set the record for most combined points, 120, in a game by three players: Randy Woods, 46; Doug Overton, 45; and Jack Hurd, 29.

Had three of the top five vote-getters in a poll to name the greatest Big Five players ever. They were Simmons, Brooks, and Kenny Durrett.

And then there were such notable teams as the No. 2-ranked 23-1 team Gola coached in 1968-69 and Morris' 30-2 Explorers in 1989-90.

There were super coaches such as Morris, Hall of Famer Ken Loeffler, and "Guru of Go" Paul Westhead. And there were other star players such as Randy Woods and Tim Legler, Doug Overton and Rasual Butler, Larry Cannon and Bernie Williams.

"It's really something when you think about it, because it must be hard for them to recruit," said Charlie Greenberg, class of 1956, who played on that 1954 national championship team that was coached by Ken Loeffler. "It's not that great a location. There's nothing to do up there."

Morris said many of the Philadelphia players he recruited were aware of some of La Salle's basketball history, and if they weren't he reminded them.

"We used to put together tapes showing them all the great players and the great history," said Morris, now the boys' coach at St. Joseph's Prep. "I was a real Gola guy, so I was always telling the kids about him."

For all the great players and teams that have followed, Gola remains the program's iconic figure, and that '54 national title its signature moment.

Morris was 12 when the Explorers won that championship, defeating Bradley in the title game at Kansas City's Convention Hall.

"I remember listening to that game on the radio with my dad," Morris said. "After that, Gola was my idol. In 1956, we were at the game here when the Warriors [with Gola a rookie guard] beat the Fort Wayne Pistons for the NBA championship."

At the time Gola graduated in 1955, he was the most honored player in the history of college basketball, a first-team all-American for four consecutive seasons, an NIT and NCAA tournament MVP. He scored more than 20 points a game and easily could have averaged 30.

The Gola era, however, did not lead to sustained success for the Explorers. A decade filled with postseason bids inevitably was followed by a decade of decline. And a couple of scandals, 35 years apart, twice retarded the program's progress.

In October 1969 in a Kansas City hotel just across the street from the arena where the Explorers won the '54 title, the NCAA announced that La Salle was being placed on two years' probation for a number of violations during coach Jim Harding's contentious one-year tenure.

That penalty prevented the No. 2-ranked Explorers from being tested in the 1968-69 postseason.

Brooks led a brief resurgence that was followed by another slump. Morris and Simmons, whose 3,217 points rank No. 3 all-time, lifted the Explorers' fortunes again. But the new millennium brought with it more disappointments.

Then, in 2004, three La Salle players were implicated in a pair of rapes. Men's coach Bill Hahn and women's coach John Miller were later accused of failing to report one of the incidents to school officials. Both later resigned.

Coach John Giannini followed Hahn, and now, in his ninth season, has finally returned La Salle to the NCAA tourney.

"It's inevitable that programs at smaller schools like La Salle are going to go through ups and downs," Morris said. "It's cyclical. About the only exception I can think of is Gonzaga. They've had a good run for, what, 10, 15 years? That's unusual.

"Sure, La Salle has had some down times. But then again they've had plenty of ups, too. And they did win a national championship."

Greenberg said there was an irony in that fact. The players on the '54 team, he said, had wanted to go to the NIT instead.

"That was really the bigger tournament back then," said Greenberg, 79, who lives in Abington. "The NCAA was really just getting started out. I don't know why we ended up going to the NCAA, but I know we were disappointed.

"Things worked out pretty well, though."

Contact Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068, Follow on Twitter @philafitz. Read his blog, "Giving 'Em Fitz," at

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